Rev. Ellen Jennings
~ Matthew 13: 31-35 ~
In 1973 E.F. Schumacher published a book entitled, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. It was published in a world on the brink of globalization, in the process of mechanization, and right before the wave of computerization. Schumacher argued that mass scales of production both dehumanized individuals and were ultimately unsustainable on a planet of finite resources. His philosophy of “enough-ness” appreciated both human needs and the appropriate use of technology. Yet, sadly, his views did not win out in the battle between people and planet preserving economics and corporate domination of both humans and the environment. Nor did they keep cities from growing into megalopolises (there are urban areas well over 20 million inhabitants, whereas Schumacher argued 500,000 was the absolute maximum any city could sustainably accommodate).
Of course, religion hasn’t escaped this “larger than life” or should I say, “larger than is good for life,” phenomenon. We’ve all heard the term, “mega church,” and some of us have even worshipped in one of their stadium sized auditoriums, replete with rock bands, coffee shops and parking garages. Note: I’m not judging these churches for their coffee shops—or their theology. There’s room in this world for many different worship styles and ways of understanding God. What I’m questioning is the inherent lack of human to human connection in these supersized scenarios. Because, like Schumacher, I believe there’s a limit to what actually constitutes a human scale. And rock concert sized worship theaters may not qualify.
Or, perhaps I’m sour grapes! Maybe I wish we had several thousand people in our worship community. With multiple pastors and staff. And a coffee bar. And better parking. And a fabulous sound system…
Well, we have good coffee. And, while our parking isn’t great, it provides us with exercise. But, okay, I would like a better sound system! Otherwise? I’m fine. I like small church! It’s human sized. We know each other. Even if sometimes we might wish for a little anonymity, for me, that’s not what church is! Or, not what small church is.
So, what is small church?
For one, it’s not anonymous. If you choose a church like ours, people are going to know who you are, they’re going to talk with you, and they’re going to care. So, if you don’t show up for a few weeks, someone might email or call. If you share a joy or concern during worship, people are going to ask you about it during Coffee Hour. If you express an interest in choir or fellowship or Sunday School, someone will contact you about how to get involved.
To a certain degree, we’re a microcosm of society. Meaning, even with our similarities, we have different personalities, experiences, backgrounds and expectations. And, none of us is perfect! Far from it. Thus, we’re regularly challenged to connect with other human beings who have just as many vices and/or foibles as we do.
Finally, we’re family: hopefully in the best sense. Because, we can talk about hard things and still share a table with one another. In fact, we engage in communion not just once a month but in multiple ways. For true communion occurs whenever we connect with each other. And the more we connect, the more we care. The more we care, the more we reach out… and check back in.
Elaine Hubert and Bill Harwood, members for many years before moving to Vermont, put it this way in a recent email:
We are sorry we cannot attend your 100th anniversary celebration, but we will be thinking about you and wishing you all the best as you start on the next one hundred. God has truly blessed CPC and all those who have been part of it.
We have so many fond memories of our time there it is impossible to list them, but they almost all revolve around the friendships we made and continue to hold dear. When we moved to Burlington, we almost immediately gravitated to another Congregational UCC church that welcomed us as warmly as we had felt welcomed at CPC. We were also, of course, attracted to a church that mirrored CPC’s core values and dedication to issues of social justice.
We miss you and remember those pillars of CPC who are no longer with us but were such a big part of these 100 years of which to be proud. We wish you a wonderful celebration and pray for your continued resilience, good work and special friendships.
As Elaine and Bill observed, and as I’m sure you’ve all realized by now, this is our 100th Anniversary year! In fact, today is the last celebration of the first century of our congregation (though we may celebrate the 100th Anniversary of our building a few years from now). At times we’ve been larger, at times we’ve been smaller. And while I wouldn’t vote for any smaller than we are right now, I think right we’re a pretty good size. Close to 150 members, we’re what’s considered a “large” small church, but a small church nonetheless. And this means we’re agile, vital. We can try new things, reconfigure staff, program for each year’s needs, and connect with one another as individuals. In fact, we mirror a lot of Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” ideals!
Honestly, we mirror a lot of Jesus’ as well. You may recall that in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them.” He didn’t say, when two or three thousand are gathered in my name. Of course, he did preach to thousands, but it appears his actual connection with people occurred individually. So, even in the story of the five thousand, it wasn’t so much the sermonizing of Jesus but the disciples living out his message by connecting with individuals as they shared food that changed people’s hearts and lives.
Individual connection. I really do think this is what it’s all about. But it’s so difficult in our fast paced and media dominated world. We have a hard time connecting in person. In fact, some of our kids relate more frequently to people virtually than they do in the flesh. Truthfully, some of us relate more frequently to people virtually than we do in the flesh! And, friends, with all due respect to the positive aspects of social and other media, this isn’t human.
Because people are inherently sacramental. By this I mean we need the physical— things we can touch, taste, smell, hear and see—to move our hearts and souls. It’s how we’re wired, it’s how we’ve evolved. It’s why we are far more likely to care deeply about a person in distress right in front of us than about a person across the globe. Though if we develop our compassion with people in our midst, especially people different from us in our midst, we’re more likely to care about people across the globe…
And this is what small church can do. We can practice being compassionate with one another and then extend this virtue into the world. Which is really what the parables of the leaven and mustard seed are all about.
In each of these tiny gems (I love how form and content complement one another in these parables), the main character is either invisible to the eye or so tiny it can barely be held. Leaven is, of course, yeast, which is a microscopic fungus. And a mustard seed is the size of a pinhead. The point of these parables? Size doesn’t matter; impact does. Yeast makes bread dough double. A mustard seed can spread across a field and overtake everything else. What Jesus was saying is that his followers can do the same. Though small in number and, certainly, in political or imperial power, that original group of twelve made an impact through their lives. They lived in such a way that others were inspired to live that way as well. In the words Luke’s gospel cites as the first sermon of Jesus, they proclaimed good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. They worked to set the oppressed free… and proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor.
And friends, this is what we’re called to do as well. In our small but mighty church, we’re called to do Jesus’ work in the world. To create the Kingdom of God right here and now. Jesus didn’t suggest we wait for the “right” political party to win power, or the rest of the world to get on board, or the pipes to be fixed in the church basement, or all the stars to align. He said to go out and do it, live his message. Now.
It really is this simple: the way we “do” small church is to live out our mission statement of loving God and neighbor in the world. We do it by interacting with one another, learning from those interactions, and going out into the world and interacting with others. We begin right here. Right here and right now. In this sanctuary. In that parlor. Then we go out, and in the words of Schumacher, echoing the teachings of Jesus: live our lives as if people (and the planet) really mattered.